Saturday, 27 December 2008

What I want for Christmas

Brave New World (The Star)
December 25, 2008

"A specialist heart hospital with a conscience, a bicycle with freedom to ride, proper sex education and a Lancer Evo ... er ... for dad".


Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas, little boy. What is your name?”


“Err ... are you sure you should be here on my knee with a name like that?”

“Don’t care; paid money to the mall, I want my presents.”

“Er ... okay … how old are you, little boy?”

“I am fort … four-and-a-half.”

“You seem mighty tall for a four-and-a-half-year-old.”

“Yes, my mother says I have big bones.”

“Right. And that moustache is the result of …?”

“Hormones in my milk.”

“If you say so … well then, have you been a good boy this year?”

“Yes. Give me my presents.”

“Ho! Ho! Ho! You are an impatient one. Well then, what would you like for Christmas? A shaving kit?”

“Ha! Ha! Ha! I paid my money so I can ask for presents, not some wisecracks.”

“Ooohhh. That’s not very nice, is it, little boy? But never mind … what would you like?”

“Well, for starters, I want to be able to grow up and know that if ever I had a heart attack, I could go to a specialist government hospital where part of the bill is covered by my tax money.

“I want to know that it is not only the rich who can afford top-notch medical care. It would be good that public money will be used for an institution that does research into heart care, and that the people of this country can have access to that heart care if they need it.

“I don’t want some money-hungry private corporation to control this institution. Medical treatment is a human right, not a privilege of the rich.”

“Are you sure you don’t want a bicycle?”

“Oh yes, I would like a bicycle. And I would like the freedom to ride that bicycle wherever I want. And if I want to wear a special T-shirt with a group of friends and ride from state to state making demands that the poor of this nation need to be cared for, then I should be allowed to do that, too.

“That’s correct, Santa. No police roadblock, no harassment, no arson attack. And most definitely no cry that the youth of this country can have no say in what they think is right. Just because a person is young does not mean he does not have the right to express himself.”

“But, little boy, you are going to turn the youth of the country into rebels!”

“Listen, you old elf, I think you’ve been listening to that cop from Selangor. Let me tell you something. It is miles better having a youthful population that cares for something other than making a few bucks so they can modify their little kap cai bikes and go racing along Jalan TAR every Friday night.

“Maybe, just maybe, the future of this country depends on young people developing a social conscience and the courage to express it.

“Maybe, just maybe, we could do well to have a nation of caring thinkers instead of a nation of obedient sheep. Have you thought of that, tubby? Huh? Huh?”

“Okay, little boy. I think that’s enough from you now. Off you go.”

“Oh no, I have more.”

“Oh, dear Lord, give me strength. All right, just one more.”

“I want an intelligent policy on HIV testing; a voluntary one that includes counselling and education.

“Not some forced programme where a bureaucrat hands you a piece of paper over a counter and says, ‘Here is your result. You are HIV positive. Better don’t get married’.

“I want proper sex education in schools where all issues are dealt with. Pregnancy, STD, preventive measures, all that kind of stuff.”

“Little boy, all the schoolchildren will be romping behind the bike sheds if we do that!”

“What makes you think they are not as it is? Look, if you want to put in a moral or religious component in the course, by all means do it.

“Remind them of all that ‘not before there’s a ring on your finger’ stuff. No harm if you do. But if you don’t have proper lessons, then those who will, will do so dangerously.”

“Oh, very well. Can you go now please, little boy. I can’t feel my legs.”

“Okay. Oh, one more thing ...”


“Can I have a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. It’s ... er ... for my dad. Merry Christmas, Santa!”

Friday, 19 December 2008

The buck stops at the state

Brave New World (The Star)
December 11, 2008

"The Bukit Antarabangsa landslide need not have happened. Laws to safeguard our hills are already in the statute books, only they were not invoked."


In the midst of yet another landslide tragedy, much has been said. The past Selangor Government vehemently denies any responsibility, while the present one says that scores of hillside developments were given the green light by the former.

Experts chip in about the possible causes and the best ways to prevent such disasters from happening again.

High-ranking politicians make statements about stopping any future projects while they go on walkabouts to show their concern.

None of this talk is going to bring back the departed or lessen the pain of those left behind. But the issue must be dealt with so that it is not repeated. We have had such disasters before, and it would appear that we have learnt nothing from them.

My question is simply this: Why should we have hillside housing anyway?

I have read about some developers saying there is a shortage of flat land upon which to build. I am not sure if this is a good enough reason.

From what I can see, be it on the slopes of Ulu Klang or the hills of Batu Ferringhi, no hillside development project is of the low-cost variety. The poor, the dispossessed, the urban settlers are surely the ones most in need of housing. Yet there are no low-cost flats looking down at us from above.

It seems to me that when homes are built on high land, they are built for the wealthy. This means the houses and apartments cost more and the developers reap higher profits. The reason to build in the hills therefore appears to be based on economic gain and not some sort of virtuous desire to house the homeless.

The highlands are important to us for many reasons. They provide a water catchment area and thus are vital for our water supply. This ability to absorb rain water also means that they play a role in flood prevention.

Furthermore, it is harder for soil erosion to occur (which can then lead to inland water pollution) if our hills are dense with vegetation.

We ought to remember also that the world’s climate is changing. Our weather patterns are not the same as they used to be. There is strong evidence to suggest that although our average annual rainfall remains constant, the intensity of our rainfall has changed. This means that when it rains, it does so in intense bursts in such volume that it poses a greater risk than ever before. Uncovered hill land is becoming more and more vulnerable.

So why should we allow our highlands to be destroyed, for whatever reason? And considering the human cost of such development, can we honestly say it is worth it?

I suggest that it is not. Any development on our hills in the future must only be allowed if it is absolutely necessary. We have the laws to control it if the state governments so wish to invoke them.

The Land Conservation Act gives tremendous power to the state governments to declare land as hill land and to control or prevent completely any sort of development on it. The Town and Country Planning Act empowers the local planning authorities to designate certain areas as being off limits to development.

The power is there, it is up to the governments involved to use it.

And if it doesn’t use it, or is negligent in its use of it, then it should be held liable. Ouster clauses which absolve local authorities of any legal responsibility like those found in the Street Drainage and Building Act have to be done away with.

It is simply not good enough to point fingers at the developers. It is true that they are the ones who would like to build wherever they can make a dollar. They are motivated by profit; that is the nature of the beast.

But what ought to be remembered is that we the people did not elect them. We elected our state and federal governments, and one of their jobs is to ensure that any sort of development does not harm us.

The developers can only do what they are allowed to do. They do not dictate the type of development we should have. At least, they should not be dictating it. It is our elected officials and the local authorities who determine this.

Is it too much to ask that they live up to that responsibility so that we don’t have to read any more stories of needless deaths? I certainly don’t think so.

Yoga ban and faith control

Brave New World (The Star)
November 27, 2008

"You can’t control what another believes because no fellow human being can truly tell what is going on in the mind of another."


I don't like yoga. With all due respect to yoga practitioners out there, I always found it a little wimpy. I mean, yeah, it’s a great party trick to be able to bend over backwards and look like Linda Blair in The Exorcist but, really, is that going to help me lug two suitcases up four flights of steps? I don’t think so.

Be that as it may, I do practise a bit of yoga. In between sets for my abdominal workout, I do a yoga thing.

I am not sure what it is called in yoga terms, but if I had to name it, I would call it “small hummingbird reaching for the moon”, and it’s great because it stretches out my ageing back.

I’ve been doing it for years and I must say that in all that time, not once did I get an urge to build a shrine to Vishnu in my dining room.

I’ve also lit an incense stick and stuck it in a pile of sand in front of a stone Buddha. And I’ve sung hymns in an abbey for two years’ worth of Wednesdays.

Neither activity made me want to be a Buddhist or join the Church of England. They were after all merely physical acts. What goes on in my mind and in my heart are completely different things.

And no one can tell me what my faith is or is not.

This brings me to the National Fatwa Council and its declaration that yoga is forbidden because it has Hindu elements in it which can cause poor simple Muslims to lose their fragile faith while sitting in the lotus position.

A lot has been said about this issue already and I don’t wish to add to the numerous points made on the legal effects of the declaration or its theological basis.

Instead I wish to point out that it is actually quite ludicrous to try to control that most private and intangible human trait: faith.

You can’t control what another believes because no fellow human being can truly tell what is going on in the mind of another.

And yet there are some who insist on trying. And so, because you can’t tell what goes on in a person spiritually, you try to control the surface issue, the physical manifestation of what you deem to be reflective of faith.

This obsession with form is not only shallow; it is also counter-productive. It breeds a mentality of “if I do the ‘right actions’, then I’m doing the right thing”.

It’s the kind of thinking that creates some horrible everyday blasphemies like people muttering “halal, ya?” after they accept a bribe.

As though the physical utterance of the right word is enough to blank out the intangible wrongness of the act.

It does not take much for a person to go to temple or church or mosque and carry out all the rituals. But such acts without the prerequisite emotional content of the rituals do not make you pious.

Just as performing things with roots in religions different from your own – the bersanding ceremony for example – without the corresponding emotional and spiritual content does not mean you are deviating from your faith.

This being the case, why bother trying to control a person’s actions? Perhaps it is the only way to try to assert authority, to force your perceived relevance onto others. If this is so, then it is a most futile effort.

I am not suggesting that there is no space for the fatwa councils of this country. There will always be people who want to get guidance from figures they believe are better qualified than themselves. Even in personal matters like faith. This is fine, but such bodies ought not to have the power to control how people choose to live their lives.

It is one thing for an authority figure to give advice; it is quite another for that same body to have the power to make rulings that have the effect of legislation, especially when it is not elected.

There is a sub-text to this episode and it concerns the recent calls by the ex- and current chief justices for the merging of Islamic law and civil law or the merging of the syariah courts and the civil courts. I do not think this is a good idea.

I have argued elsewhere that the emotive nature of any theologically based law and the exclusivity of such systems are not appropriate for a fundamentally democratic society.

Time and time again, I have heard the repeated argument that only those who are “qualified” can speak about Islamic law.

In a country where all its people should have a right to speak about matters that affect their lives, regardless of their education, this to me is an unacceptable approach to law-making.

However, my point here is that this recent declaration on yoga, which to my eyes reflects a terribly narrow world-view and a superficial understanding of this matter of faith, is made not by some obscure group. It was made by the National Fatwa Council.

This council is a part of officialdom and in the event that our Constitution is fundamentally changed to allow our civil and Islamic legal systems to be merged, the council’s voice will be a most prominent one in the hybrid system that is formed.

That is all the more reason then that this proposed merger is not allowed to happen.

A blunderbuss of a law

Brave New World (The Star)
November 13, 2008

"Section 8B of the Internal Security Act says that the Home Minister’s decision cannot be questioned, but there are cases where courts have found ways around it."


I do solemnly promise you, the reader, that I will not mention in this article anything about the American presidential election.

Yes, this is terribly parochial of me, but I think there has been quite enough discussion about you-know-who winning you-know-what. Besides, there are only so many jokes one can make by comparing the American presidency and the PKNS general manager’s post.

Now that that is out of the way, I want to tell you an amazing story. On Sunday night, I was aimlessly wandering the streets of Petaling Jaya, as you do, when I was met with a remarkable sight.

Jalan Timur was completely deserted. This was around nine at night, and usually the road would be full of suburbanites going around their suburbanite business. But instead, there was an eerie silence.

The only people there were some policemen, and they looked at me suspiciously as I crossed and re-crossed the road, skipping with joy at the lack of life-threatening vehicles. I thought that this was a recent innovation of the Selangor government – to make Jalan Timur a pedestrian zone. How environmentally friendly.

Later, I realised that there was an “illegal assembly” outside Amcorp Mall and the police had arrested a whole bunch of people and chased away an even bigger bunch of people who had gathered there to celebrate the first anniversary of the Bersih Rally.

Actually, according to the law, any grouping of three people can be deemed an illegal assembly. That means if I were skipping on Jalan Timur with two pals, we could theoretically be arrested as well. Rather silly, isn’t it?

Especially in the light of Article 10 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to assemble peaceably without arms. How do we then reconcile Article 10 with the Police Act which has that “three people can be an illegal assembly” rule?

Well, the Constitution does say that Parliament can make laws that restrict public assemblies if it is for national security or public order. And to empower the police to protect our “national security” and “public order”, we have the Police Act.

I suppose there is a need to control assemblies. After all, if there are thousands and thousands of people wandering around Petaling Jaya skipping and waving banners and such, then there will be traffic jams and other such inconveniences.

However, in the practice of this power, surely the police have to do so keeping in mind that we have a right to assemble, and any restriction on that right has to be for “national security” and “public order” reasons.

Were the people assembling near Jalan Timur carrying weapons? Were they violent? Were they a threat to national security? Were they disturbing public order?

If the answer to all these questions are no, then surely their constitutional right should trump any power the Police Act may give our men and women in blue.

This appears to me to be a case of following the letter of the law, but not the spirit. Fortunately, there are those who are not so shallow in their thinking.

I am speaking, of course, about Justice Syed Ahmad Helmy Syed Ahmad. He had ordered the release of Raja Petra Kamarudin, declaring the detention order made against him by Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar as unlawful, as it was done beyond the ambit of the Internal Security Act which gave the minister such powers.

Is this judgment correct? Section 8B of the Internal Security Act does say that the minister’s decision cannot be questioned. This is known as an ouster clause, where the court’s power to review a governmental decision is taken away from it.

Well, there are cases where courts have found ways around ouster clauses and the reason they do this is that surely it can’t be intended that a minister should have total and unfettered power.

For example, the use of the ISA is supposed to be only about national security.

If a minister chooses to detain men with long hair because their gorgeous locks are deemed a threat to national security as they make women jealous and therefore are likely to sulk and thus grinding national productivity to a halt, must a judge sit idly by and allow such a ludicrous act on the part of the minister?

Most judges in the past have done just that. They have refused to question the minister’s exercise of power under section 8 of the ISA. Justice Syed Ahmad Helmy bucked the trend and all expectations by deciding otherwise.

And I think his judgment is in all likelihood (it is not yet published so I have not read it in full) legally sound.

The ISA is an awful blunderbuss of a law and to allow anyone the ability to use it with complete discretion is simply making a bad situation worse. The law should be repealed; there is no room for potentially unending detention without trial in a civilised country.

But until that happens, the courts must be a place where one can turn to to ensure that whatever detentions that do occur are not done on grounds beyond the intentions of the Act.

We need a reformer

Brave New World (The Star)
October 30, 2008

"He is someone who is brave enough to stand up to the more extreme elements in his party, who has proven that he has strong principles of justice and democracy and is courageous enough to stand by them regardless of how the political winds may blow."


ometimes, a change in leadership is a good thing. Take Tottenham Hotspur, for example. They have made their worst start to a season since the days football was played using the head of a sheep. Then suddenly, Harry Redknapp becomes the new manager and they win their first league game in 10 tries.

It was the same when Juande Ramos became the new boss last year. They won the Carling Cup after winning nothing for nine years.

It soon petered out, though, and the same could happen with Harry “Houdini” Redknapp. A change could mean better things or it could mean a moment of excitement followed by the same old, same old.

Perhaps it is the prospect of change that keeps people here interested in things like the Umno elections.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak looks like he is on the way to becoming the new Umno president and by convention (but not by law) will then probably become the new Prime Minister soon after.

Is this going to be the beginning of a new phase in Malaysian politics and governance?

I doubt it. Looking at the recent behaviour of the executive, it seems they are doing the same things they have been doing for years. March 8 does not seem to have made them any more sensitive to what bothers the Malaysian people.

Two things pop into mind.

First is the appointment of the new Chief Justice. Now, it was quite obvious that when Tan Sri Zaki Azmi made his meteoric rise in the judiciary from being former Umno lawyer to Supreme Court judge to President of the Court of Appeal, something was definitely afoot.

It could be that he is the finest of fellows, cut as he is from the cloth of Azmi Mohamed (Lord President 1968-1974, when our judiciary was respected and independent), and I am in no way suggesting otherwise.

However, considering his history and the history of our executive having such an influence on our judiciary, it is undeniable that his elevation would raise more than just eyebrows.

However, I had thought that after March 8, the executive would be a wee bit circumspect when the time came to advising the King on who should be the new Chief Justice.

I had thought that the people’s anger at the recent scandals with regard to the judiciary (which I believe was one of the issues affecting the polls outcome) would have woken the executive up to the fact that we would ideally like to see a more independent method of choosing the top judge.

Then there is the matter of a local Malay language daily and its publication of a short story about the assassination of a “fictitious” MP which, in my opinion, is little more than a thinly veiled incitement to committing violence on Teresa Kok.

There are so many laws that can be used against such an appalling act of irresponsibility on the part of the paper for publishing such a story, but all it gets is a “warning”, whatever that might be.

Now don’t get me wrong, I abhor the Printing Presses and Publications Act and I am not advocating its use against any paper, even one that behaves so badly.

However, the hypocrisy shown in that episode is appalling.

It would appear therefore that at least where the ruling party is concerned, it is business as usual in the area of politics and governance in Malaysia.

Would a change in Umno leadership alter that?

For that to happen, it would require a new top man who is a reformer; someone who is brave enough to stand up to the more extreme elements in his party; a person who has proven that he has strong principles of justice and democracy and is courageous enough to stand by them regardless of how the political winds may blow.

Just smoke and mirrors

Brave New World (The Star)
October 16, 2008

"There are similarities between the world financial crisis and the possibility of Malaysians joining Barisan Nasional without having to join one of the component parties."


There is a strange parallel between what is happening to the world economy and what is happening here at home.

In recent days, it has been announced that a bailout deal measured in the trillions is being arranged by several governments in the world to help their ailing banks.

Also in recent days, it was announced that there is a possibility for Malaysians to join Barisan Nasional without having to join one of the component parties.

These two separate events strike me as being very similar. Both are attempts to fix a bad situation but neither is dealing with the key issue.

Firstly, let us look at the financial crisis. It all started with the banks. They were simply lending too much money, in particular to home buyers.

Money was being borrowed by people who could not afford to borrow that much and when they could not pay, the banks started to crumble.

This had a domino effect on others because the banks then could not lend to businesses and the latter’s survival started to be threatened too.

In this increasingly shrinking world, it did not take long for an event that started in America to spread the world over. Especially since America is such an economic powerhouse and what happens in their economy affects the world economy.

To give a simple example, if an American importer can’t pay his debts because he can’t get a loan, the foreign company that sold the goods to the American importer could suffer a disastrous loss.

Coming back to our shores, it is clear that the Barisan leadership has finally realised that some of us may be a wee bit tired of racial politics.

And yet, these very same people may actually be fond of Barisan and would like to be part of it. Which is a bit like saying I am a vegetarian but I like hanging out in steakhouses.

Be that as it may, let us assume there are such people out there. Well, it has now been proposed that they can join Barisan directly.

This is not to say that Barisan is moving towards becoming a single multi-racial party as opposed to being a coalition of largely race-based parties. The Prime Minister has said this is not so.

The proposal is merely giving the opportunity to individuals to be part of the ruling coalition.

Their non-racial views will then have a platform and the race-based parties in turn can explain to them what their worldview is.

The governments involved in the mega financial bailout and our very own Barisan are both merely covering the cracks in the wall with paper.

If we look at the banking crisis, the root cause was that banks were being too greedy.

They lent money like it was going out of style in order to reap the interest.

Behaving like the basest of gluttons, they ignored the basic rule of banking, which was to only lend to those who could pay.

And while things were going well, they patted themselves on their fat backs with huge bonuses and the like.

Bailing them out now may stop the world from sliding into a great depression like in the 1930s (the surge in the stock market prices suggests it may do just that) but unless the banks themselves are stopped from acting in such an irresponsible manner in the future, these same problems can arise again.

It is the same with the proposal of direct entry into Barisan.

Apart from the fact that there are many unanswered questions (for example, if Mr X were to join Barisan directly, can he become Prime Minister?), the crux of the matter is this: the powerful players in Barisan are still racially driven.

They have made representing their own ethnic group their raison d’ĂȘtre.

Until and unless this changes, for example by the complete disbanding of the Barisan component parties and the creation of a single BN multi-racial party (as suggested by Gerakan last year), direct membership is merely a superficial exercise in trying to appear more inclusive and less racially-based then they really are.

As it stands, many in the Barisan, like Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek, have shown that they consider the existence of their own race-based party as being of paramount importance. I am sure many think in the same way.

Therefore, if an individual is really concerned about the creation of a Malaysia which does not use race as part of its modus operandi, would he or she want to join a group in which such thinking is still so prominent?

It is all well and good to try to improve affairs when things go wrong, both in the world financial sector and our local political scene, but unless the heart of the matter is dealt with, all we have is just smoke and mirrors.

Should we have such an Act?

Brave New World (The Star)
Friday October 3, 2008

"A Race Relations Act will have to take into consideration certain articles entrenched in the Constitution as well as ensure that mature public dialogue is not stifled."


A Race Relations Act is in the works, it would appear. How nice; a law to help the different races have relations. It is still early days yet.

There isn’t a draft to examine, so any discussion will have to be based on more general issues regarding the implications of such a law.

Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal has made it clear that the Government has studied similar laws on race relations in other countries and is now in the process of developing our own.

I would like to take this opportunity to raise some concerns.

Firstly, race relations laws like the one they have in the UK is more about ensuring that there is no discrimination on the basis of race with regard to matters such as employment, education and the like.

It’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a pretty good thing.

If a person feels he is being treated unfairly at work because of his ethnicity, then it is good to have a law to help him get justice.

I have always advocated such a law, especially when told about how, in the private sector, certain races are supposedly not given the time of day.

However, if this is the purpose of the Act, then the principle will have to be applied across the board, in the private as well as public sector.

Is this going to happen? Fat chance.

The Constitution allows for quotas to be set in the public sector for bumiputras and I doubt that the Government of the day is going to do away with those provisions.

If this is the case, then any legal requirement for fair treatment becomes a farce.

Surely, the Government is not so silly as to mean a law for equal treatment then.

What is left? Maybe it will simply be a law to prevent people from saying nasty things to others based on race and, perhaps, religion. A law to stop hate speech.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But then we must look at the matter in the context of Malaysia.

Do we have similar laws along the same vein? Yes, we do. It’s called the Sedition Act.

Why the need for a new law then?

Furthermore, any law would be used according to the discretion of the powers that be.

I am very uncertain as to whether such a law would be used fairly.

I am worried that some comments would be deemed more hateful than others depending on whom it is aimed at.

After all, we can see in recent times how a blogger’s comments were deemed so inflammatory that he deserved to be locked up without trial, and yet, a politician can say hateful things and no law is used against him.

He gets a slap on the wrist and goes on with his jolly little life.

Also, just what is going to be defined as “hate speech”?

I suppose some things are obvious.

Associating certain races with certain porcine mammals should be in there.

But what about legitimate discussions? Will these be included as well?

Let us look at one battle cry that has been raised in recent times. According to some people (and they run the whole gamut from two-bit politicians to so-called academics), the Malays and their precious rights are being challenged. (Tellingly, details are never provided.)

Now, legally, these “rights” (they are privileges actually, not rights) can be found in Articles 152 and 153 of the Constitution.

Article 152 is about Bahasa Malaysia being the official language and 153 is the power given to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to set quotas in matters of public service, education, permits and licences for bumiputras.

One thing I want to make clear here is that Article 153 gives the King a discretionary power, and it has to be done to a level which he deems reasonable.

What does “reasonable” mean? This is a subjective term, and common sense would dictate that it can be open for discussion.

What if this new proposed law deemed such discussions to be “hate speech” or causing a “breakdown in race relations”?

It would mean another nail in the coffin of Malaysian civil liberties.

I must admit I am writing purely on conjecture.

But in countries where a race relations law exists, they more often that not have a strong foundation in human rights. We don’t.

It could very well mean a further erosion of the precious few rights of expression that we do have.

To summarise, my main concerns are three-fold: an equal opportunities law will not work in a legal system with an institutionalised system of discrimination; the application of laws in this country does not appear to be fair; and there is always the possibility that a Malaysian Race Relations Act will serve only to chip away the few chances we have at any sort of mature public dialogue.

We have problems in this country. Perhaps the way forward is to openly debate such matters in an intelligent fashion.

It is not speech which causes problems after all; it is the irresponsible few who threaten people with violence and fire bombs who are the real threat.

And we have laws aplenty to deal with such elements.

That is, if those laws are ever used against the real perpetrators.

Time to get rid of draconian ISA

Brave New World (The Star)
September 18, 2008

"The preamble of the Internal Security Act is crystal clear in that it (ISA) was intended to be used for violent threats to the country."


On June 21, 1960, in the Dewan Rakyat, then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak said: “The Government has no desire whatsoever to hinder healthy democratic opposition in any way. This is a democratic country and the Government intends to maintain it as such. It is the enemies of democracy who will be detained.”

He said this during the debate on the Internal Security Bill and it is reported in the Hansard.

The Bill of course went on to become our infamous Internal Security Act (ISA).

It is a tough law but it must be remembered that as broad as the powers given to the Government are; the preamble of the Act has this to say:

“[This is] An Act to provide for the internal security of the Federation, preventive detention, the prevention of subversion, the suppression of organised violence against persons and property in specified areas of the Federation and for matters incidental thereto”.

The late Hugh Hickling, the drafter of the ISA, had said in interviews shortly before his death, that the preamble is crystal clear and that the ISA was intended to be used for violent threats to the country.

The late former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Hussein, when confronted with the draconian nature of the Act, admitted that it was so.

However, he also pointed out that the normal workings of a democracy, such as a free press, would keep the Government in check and be a disincentive for them to abuse their powers.

What we have here is a forgotten little piece of history.

The ISA was drafted to battle the violent communist insurgency, and, one presumes, other threats of the same ilk.

As stated by the father of the current Deputy Prime Minister, it was not meant to stifle democracy. And furthermore, it is the very mechanisms of democracy, such as a free press, that will keep the use of the ISA in check.

In this light, we can see that the powers provided by the ISA have been severely abused over the decades.

The latest example of course is the arrest of Raja Petra Kamarudin, Teresa Kok and Tan Hoon Cheng.

The reasons for the detention of the three have nothing to do at all with any sort of violent action or even proposed violent action on their part.

In the case of Tan, the justification for her 16-hour detention was so ludicrous and so obtuse, that it beggared belief.

The ISA was not meant to be used as a personal protection device. And pray tell how a 16-hour detention after which the individual was released back into the public sphere can be considered “protection”?

Raja Petra is currently being charged for criminal defamation and sedition.

He is facing the law in open court where he shall be accused and he shall have the opportunity to defend himself or he would have done if he was not locked up right now.

Why on earth is he being detained? Is he planning some sort of armed rebellion? There is no evidence at all to indicate even the slightest hint of that.

And Kok is being detained because some political opponents have decided to accuse her of offending Islam.

If these accusations are false, and there are indications that they are, then there is a term for this kind of behaviour – fitnah.

Fitnah is the most despicable crime committed only by the most despicable of creatures.

I am disgusted by the latest use of the ISA. It is undoubtedly going against the spirit and the intention of the ISA.

The arrest of Raja Petra, Kok and Tan also shows that the law is so open to abuse that we have no other choice but to get rid of it. There can be no room for amendments.

The ISA must go.

It was a win for us, the people

Brave New World (The Star)
September 4, 2008


A very nice colleague of mine just left Malaysia to go back home to California. Yes, he is an American, a very nice one. They do exist, you know.

He comes here every year to teach for a couple of months, and I told him that I looked forward to seeing him again next year. Just as he left, I said: “Hey, next time you come back, maybe I won’t be laughing at your President any more.”

He laughed along with me but he was far too polite (a nice, polite American, hard to believe but true) to say that a similar thing could happen here.

Could we possibly have a new ruling party in power the next time my friend comes a-calling? Who knows? Like many sceptics, I will be really surprised if Sept 16 brings about any change.

I find it hard to believe that 30 or more Barisan Nasional MPs are going to jump over to Pakatan Rakyat. I could be wrong. After all, I went on record to say that Barisan would not lose their two-thirds majority in the last general election. So I suppose the possibility for change is there.

A possibility made all the stronger with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s resounding victory in Permatang Pauh. Despite the Barisan pulling out all the stops, he won by a bigger majority than his wife Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail did a few short months ago.

The tsunami, it appears, has not stopped. Naturally, Pakatan folk have been waxing lyrical about this victory.

I found it more interesting to see what the Barisan lot had to say. Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar’s dismissal of the win as being of little importance because it was just a by-election seems a little disingenuous seeing how much effort they had put into it.

Ex-Umno supremo Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s claim that it was a rejection of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi sounds like his anger at his former chosen one has blinded him to reason.

Of all the Barisan big shots, the only one who made any real sense was Umno vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who said that the by-election showed that people wanted a change from how things are, including the tenor of governance in Malaysia.

I would like to think this is true. That we have grown up enough to realise that for the country to prosper, we have to stop dividing ourselves based on ethnicity, and work together.

The best must be rewarded and the weak must be helped. Regardless of what they look like and whom they pray to.

But before this can happen, we need to have a serious and mature democratic process in place, and that means we have to have a two-party system. Without a real choice of a different government, it is impossible to expect any real change.

I have been voting since 1990 and every single election I have taken part in, the cry has been for the Opposition to take away the Barisan’s two-thirds majority. The possibility of actually forming a new government was deemed too unlikely. This has changed, and now that possibility is here.

The significance of Anwar’s victory is bigger than his return to mainstream politics, it is bigger than Pakatan’s continued popularity; it is the (hopefully not false) dawn of a true democracy, where the people of Malaysia have a real choice.

With a real choice, no one group can get too bigheaded or arrogant, for they will realise that their position of power is not some divine right. The offices in Putrajaya are not freehold. Those sitting in them are merely tenants, and we the people are the landlords.

If, and this is a massive if, Pakatan comes into power, and if, again another gargantuan if, they keep their promise to undo all the draconian laws that we have, then the democratic process will grow ever bigger and healthier.

And if they mess up, so what? The people will have a choice. They can vote them out. And whoever is in Opposition then should have an easier time because unlike now, their civil liberties should be protected.

Malaysia is on the cusp of something significant. We are on the verge of becoming a real democracy. That is the importance of Permatang Pauh. It was not Anwar’s victory, it was not Pakatan’s victory; it was ours.

Ivory tower ‘internment’

Brave New World (The Star)
August 21, 2008

"Amending the Universities and University Colleges Act will not produce independent-minded graduates. It is better to do away with the leash altogether."


In the last column, we discussed the proposed amendments to the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), in particular amendments regarding the establishment of a committee to select the vice-chancellor (VC).

This week, we shall look at the changes the Bill proposes for students.

The first question that comes to mind is: Are these changes an improvement? The answer: Yes, they are. But then it’s not difficult to improve on a law as awful as the UUCA.

The real question should be: Are these changes going to make a significant change? The answer to that is far less emphatic.

Originally, the Act works on a presumption that students are not allowed to join any group outside the university without the VC’s permission.

The amendment will reverse that presumption so that students can join any group except political parties, illegal groups and any group that the VC deems to be unsuitable.

This is an improvement, but it’s not a huge one. There seems to be little logic in banning students from joining political parties, for example. If we allow students to be part of a political party, are they really going to join in droves?

The most annoying person during my years as a university student in England was a Labour party diehard.

My God, he was an irritant; spouting the party line at the drop of a hat. As far as I know, in my year of a hundred students, he was the only political party member.

The student elections were won every year by independent nominees, and not political party nominees.

Granted, England is different from Malaysia, but I doubt the Malaysian political parties will have too many joining up from the campuses. And even if they did, so what?

“The students will not study,” I hear you say. Listen, if students are dumb enough to let their bunting-hanging activities get in the way of their getting a degree, they will be dumb enough to let anything cause them to flunk. Online gaming, for example.

At the end of the day, they are adults, and they make their own choices. That is what produces mature graduates, those who have lived in an environment where they made their own choices and lived with them.

Furthermore, “illegal organisations” can be bona fide NGOs which have difficulty registering with the Registrar of Societies (and it can be tough getting the ROS’ okay).

And the power given to the VC to “ban any unsuitable organisation” is far too broad and open to abuse.

The restriction on students is made worse by the fact that “student” is defined by the amending Bill to include post-graduate, post-doctorate and external students.

Are you telling me that all these working men and women have to subject their normal activities to the restrictions of the UUCA?

According to the Bill, students are now allowed greater freedom of expression. As long as it is in a properly organised forum like a seminar. And, even then a seminar which is not organised by a political party, illegal group or VC-banned group.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for student autonomy and the freedom of expression.

And, students are not allowed to express support for illegal groups, political parties and VC-banned groups. Why ever not? If a student is just so in love with Umno, why shouldn’t he say so?

He can become really popular. He can be given cute nicknames like Umno Boy or Barisan Kid. “Hey, let’s ask Umno Boy to join us for tea. It will be fun listening to him recite the party manifesto.”

Even illegal groups have their worth. I mean, at one time the African National Congress was illegal. So was Fatah. Imagine if a student was anti-apartheid or anti-Zionist.

If the UUCA had been in existence in those days, he wouldn’t have been able to even verbally support Nelson Mandela or the intifada.

There is also the troubling proposal to allow a student charged with a registrable offence to be suspended from his studies.

Good heavens. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? He was charged, not convicted. There seems to be a serious lack of fairness if he can be punished simply for being accused of an offence, even before he is found to be in the wrong.

At the end of the day, the proposed amendments appear to be a case of wanting your cake and eating it too.

I believe the Government does realise that the UUCA is not a good law, and something has to be done about it. It does not promote academic freedom; it is utterly stifling on the students. However, these amendments show that they are at least theoretically merely lengthening the leash.

If we want independent-minded graduates and universities of excellence, then the leash has to be done away with altogether.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Pick the Right VC for the Job

Brave New World (The Star)
August 7 2008

A vice chancellor must understand the needs of academia. Merit has to be the paramount factor when hiring, firing and promoting."


Over the years I have said many times (to any unfortunate soul listening) that two of the root causes of the poor state of Malaysian public universities are the appointment method of vice chancellors (VC) and the utter repression of our students.

Both matters are dealt with by the Universities and University Colleges Act. For about two years now there has been talk about this Act being amended. The amending Bill is finally ready and waits to be debated in parliament.

For this week, let’s look at the appointment of the VC. The choice of a VC is terribly important. They set the tone for the university and they can do much inside the institution to improve things, even within the limitations of Malaysian law and politics.

A VC has to have excellent managerial skills because it’s hard to think of a more unmanageable group of people than academics. They tend to be argumentative and questioning; at least those who understand that, as academics, they should be argumentative and questioning.

A good manager, however, does not mean a bureaucrat. A university can only thrive when there are as few bureaucratic obstacles as possible. A person enamoured by forms and the filling of forms, and who thinks this is the way to achieve academic excellence, should work for Sirim instead.

VCs must also be fairly presentable creatures as they, more often than not, represent their institution. By this I mean well spoken, intelligible and not parochial. I don’t mean they have to be handsome or pretty. That would make it hard to find anyone.

Finally, and most importantly, a VC must understand the needs of academia. Merit has got to be the paramount factor when hiring, firing and promoting (please don’t write angry emails about student intake and merit, it is out of the university’s hands – at least for now).

Academic standards must not be compromised for any reason and academic integrity (no cutting and pasting from the net and claiming it’s your work, thank you) must be the ethos to live by.

VCs must truly appreciate academic and intellectual freedom. They must realise that due to its nature a university must promote the autonomy of both the individual and the institution.

A simple example is that the needs of a humanities department are extremely different from the needs of a science department. As such, they require the autonomy to decide what is best for them. In universities, one size, most definitely, does not fit all.

A VC must thus respect the freedom of those working and studying in the university and must be courageous enough to stand up against any threat that challenges the very values that is required for a university to be good.

It’s not easy, especially with a government like ours, but this must be done and done in real terms, not just lip service.

The law as it stands states that the VC is chosen by the Higher Education Minister after consultation with the university’s board. The Bill proposes that an ad hoc committee be set up when necessary to advice the minister in the choice of VC.

This is indeed an improvement on the old method, which gave total discretion to the minister and which led to appointments being made, more often than not, on the political correctness of the candidate (and here I mean he or she supports the correct political party).

However, I’m not all that convinced about this new set-up either.

The minister is the one who appoints the committee, and therefore is he likely to choose a group of people who don’t at the very least think along the same lines as he does? Will their advice be “politically correct”?

The committee looks very much like a search committee. This is the method that universities in developed parts of the world use to find a VC.

A true search committee is appointed by the university’s board, and opens the call for applications to anyone interested. It could be limited to the country or it could be open to the world.

There is a criterion which the committee must adhere to when sifting through the potential candidates, usually based around the qualities I mentioned earlier.

It then makes a shortlist and calls for interviews. Some universities involve the student body and the staff union in the interview. After this process it makes its recommendation to the board.

There is no government participation, and therefore no political criterion is involved, only academic and managerial. All this is done in an open and transparent manner which can be scrutinised by all.

Obviously, this is not the case with the suggested committee on the Act. There are still many unanswered questions with regard to it. Its make-up is just one.

What is the criterion it is to use in seeking a VC; will the search be based on an open call or will it be a matter of making a short list on its own?

None of these concerns are dealt with in the Bill, so forgive me if I am not dancing around with joy at this “improvement”. We still have to see how the committee works in practice before we get excited.

At least the explanatory notes to the Bill explain that the purpose of having a committee is to make the process more transparent.

That is something the academic community should hold the ministry to, and we should demand that the committee’s decision-making process is as open as possible and we should then scrutinise its activities (if the amendment Bill is passed) with eagle eyes.

For the next column, I shall discuss the implications of the amendment on students. And examine if the proposed changes will actually make much difference to their repressed little lives.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Now, boys, just settle down

Brave New World (The Star)
24 July 2008

The teacher has to rein in the unruly few or the lesson cannot start and the whole class, nay, even school, will suffer."


Good morning, boys. Good morning. Settle down, settle down. Now, it’s been a tough couple of weeks for us and as your class teacher, I think we should go over a few things.

We have been the premier school in the country for the past 50 years, but a few unpleasant incidents recently have put that position at risk.

If we don’t get our act together, we may lose our hallowed position.

Therefore, before we begin our history lesson, there are a few matters I would like to discuss with you.

First off, our head prefect, Mr Hamid, can you stand up, please? Well, it seems that you have ...

You there, yes, you, the boy at the back. Can you please stop making that obscene gesture with your hands? No, you can’t say you are just tapping your right hand with your left. That is an obscene gesture. Keep it up and I’ll give you six strokes.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, Mr Hamid. It seems that you caused a massive traffic jam at the school gates. Your prefects were stopping everybody and checking their badges and their bags. Do you realise that you caused a great deal of problems?

Boys were late to class and even teachers were late because of your overzealous behaviour. Mr Tan the Maths master was furious because half his class missed their calculus exam.

What did you say? You were concerned about the security of the school because you thought our rival school was going to cause trouble at your prefects’ meeting? And where, pray tell, did you get this intelligence?

Oh, you heard it on the grapevine? Well, the next time you choose to listen to plants, please check with me first before you go disrupting our school day.

Second on the list is our debating team. Gentlemen, please join me in a round of applause for the hard work of our team captain, Mr Chik.

He put up a courageous display against a debater who had miles more experience than him. Bravo, Mr Chik, a brave effort indeed.

Brave but futile, I’m afraid. Mr Chik, I have spoken to the debate master and he told me that you hardly did any research.

Listen, my boy, you can’t beat the opposition by making personal attacks on their past.

You have to put over your point clearly; otherwise you’ll just look foolish.

And one more thing; for the next debate, please bring a handkerchief.

All right, now it is time to discuss some academic matters. I have just marked your General Paper test and I was quite shocked with some of your answers.

Mr Ibrahim, stand up, please. Young man, I read your essay on government scholarships and it was very passionate and fiery but you can’t just make things up.

There is nowhere in the Constitution that says that all scholarships are reserved for Malays.

It says that reservations of a proportion of scholarships for Malays may be made by the King. It does not say every single sen is for one group or another.

Don’t argue with me, boy! You got it all wrong. All you have to do is read the blinking thing.

What do you mean you did read it? What did you see exactly when you read it?

Perhaps I should send you to the school nurse. I think you need glasses.

One last thing; as you all know, half the boys in this school stay in the hostel.

It has come to my attention that the day boys have been teasing the hostel boys by questioning, how can I put it, their ... manliness.

This behaviour has got to stop. It is childish and undignified. It also reflects an obsession with matters sexual that borders on the unhealthy.

The next time you get the urge to speculate about another person’s private life, may I suggest you play some rugby and let the exertions raise your minds from the gutter?

Very well then, I trust the events of the past few weeks have taught you all a lesson and the debacles that have so embarrassed us will not be repeated.

We can now begin our history lesson. Would you be so kind as to take out your textbooks and turn to page ...

For the last time, boy, stop making that gesture! You have had your warning, and seeing as how you are too uncouth to show the slightest bit of remorse and repentance, I shall see you after class.

Let’s see whether you can keep doing that with your hands once I’ve caned them raw.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, please open your books to page 46 ...

Who knows what’s true anymore?

Brave New World (The Star)
26 June 2008

"The accusations made over the past couple of weeks are merely symptomatic of a justice system on the verge of collapse. We are in desperate need of a revamp of the justice system, and we the people should keep demanding for it."


What a messy couple of weeks it has been. First, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is accused (yet again) of the type of love that dare not speak its name. Then out of nowhere, a private eye comes out with a statutory declaration implying that the Deputy Prime Minister was involved in the murder case of Altantuya Shaariibuu.

The very next day, the same fellow retracts his original statutory declaration and replaces it with a new one that completely leaves out any mention of the DPM. Apparently, he was coerced into making the first one.

I was asked the other day who I believed. Whose story is true?

My answer was “How the blinking heck should I know?” I am not any of the people mentioned above. I am not their friend or relative, and I was not present at any of the places where all these things were supposed to have happened.

And most of us don’t know either. That is not to say that the chattering does not stop. In fact, the chattering has got very noisy indeed.

Some are so disgusted by all these claims, counter-claims, accusations and counter-accusations that they have withdrawn in a hissy huff.

Others relish the new developments, coming up with theories and conspiracies that boggle the mind.

The Prime Minister then steps in and says all this must stop. All the second-guessing and rumour mongering is akin to treachery and is bad for the nation. The truth must not be clouded by perceptions.

Ah, the truth, the sweet, sweet truth. That is the real issue here, isn’t it?

While some refuse to give all the dirty political manoeuvrings the time of day and others add grease to its wheels, neither have mentioned the all-so-obvious – the reason this kind of garbage can occur and the reason it gets discussed so much is because we don’t know whom to trust any more. We are not confident that the truth will ever be uncovered.

However, all this hullabaloo surrounding the accusations is merely symptomatic of a justice system on the verge of collapse.

If we had a police force whom we knew with almost 100% certainty would serve the law and not the executive; if we could believe that every single judge was utterly independent of any outside influence; if we could place hand on heart and say that the Public Prosecutor would prosecute without fear or favour; then we would have a sound justice system.

And if that were the case, all these issues would be sorted out via due process and in good time. And all the conspiracies would be confined to the fringes rather than be in the mainstream of debate.

This debacle must not be taken at face value. It must be treated as what it really is – a loss of trust in the institutions of justice.

So, instead of hiding in the comfort of Astro TV or wallowing in the who-did-what-to-whom, we should instead be focused on finding a cure to the real problem. We are in desperate need of a revamp of the justice system.

This is something that we the people should keep on demanding.

And the Prime Minister should also take heed that it is well and good to tell the people to listen to the truth, but after years of judicial scandal; a police force that appears governed by the executive and not by the rule of law; an Attorney-General’s Chambers that is beholden to the political demands of the nation’s leaders; and a press muzzled by repressive laws with a government that is not afraid to use them; it is not a simple matter of not wanting to listen to the truth.

It is a matter of not ever being confident just what the truth is.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Is the Government serious or not?

Brave New World (The Star)
26 June 2008

Making the judicial appointment process more transparent and accountable and having true separation of powers will be our main safeguard against tyranny."


In April, the Prime Minister made a speech at a dinner organised by the Bar Council and the Government. In it, he promised that there would be established a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) made up of “primary stakeholders” to shortlist nominees for judges.

This was to make the judicial appointment process more transparent and accountable and thus ensure that the judiciary could once more be trusted.

Earlier this month, the Royal Commission set up to investigate the Lingam tapes came out with its report and, apart from confirming the veracity of the video and condemning the damage done to the judiciary by those named by senior lawyer V.K. Lingam in their devious ploys at determining which judge was promoted, the Commission suggested that a JAC be established and that its recommendations should be taken heed of by the Prime Minister, who could reject its views only in the most extreme of circumstances.

I didn’t write about these two developments earlier because, being Malaysian, cynicism runs in my veins and I wanted to see whether any real developments would happen. Not just talk.

Personally, I would like to see the Prime Minister, as the head of the Executive, having nothing at all to do with the appointment and promotion of judges. Only in that way can there be true separation of powers, our main safeguard against tyranny.

In that sense, the Royal Commission’s suggestion was a little mild for my liking. Having said that, it is still a million times better than the system that we have now – a system where the Prime Minister has the final say, and the appointment and promotion of judges is done arbitrarily.

Regarding the Prime Minister’s speech, although I did not feel the need to give him a standing ovation as the Bar did, I was optimistically cautious. After all, the independence of the judiciary was one of the waves that made up the political tsunami of March 8.

No right thinking premier indeed would not take note of this fact and take the necessary steps to give the people what they want.

And for a while at least, it looked like the Prime Minister was on the road to doing just that.

He appointed Datuk Zaid Ibrahim (who was not even selected to stand for election – maybe because of the liberal sounds he makes) as a senator and made him the de facto Law Minister. Zaid then promised not only a JAC but also to return Article 121 to its original form.

Article 121, for those of you who have never slept through a Constitutional Law lecture, is about judicial power. It used to be that the Judiciary determined its own jurisdiction, i.e. what cases it could, and could not, hear.

Article 121 was amended in 1988 to give that power to Parliament. So now Parliament has the power to tell the Judiciary what sort of cases it can judge. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the separation of powers.

Then last Saturday, it was reported that the proposed JAC Zaid tabled before the Cabinet had been “put on hold”. The newspaper report was full of coy statements by the Law Minister when faced with the question of whether the Prime Minister was truly committed to the idea.

Well, I’m not in government and I don’t have to be coy. If the Prime Minister and his Cabinet were committed to the idea of a clean, fair and independent judiciary, we should be making substantial steps forward with the proposal by Zaid being made open to the public for further debate before it is sent to the Attorney-General’s Chambers to be made into a Bill.

As it is, it all seems to be in limbo. Just what is it about the proposal that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet dislike? Is it the fact that one man does not hold all the power anymore? Could it be the idea that the loss of the ability to twist the judiciary around the fingers of the Executive is so shocking that it can’t be endured?

Frankly, I think that is the only reason for this plan to be “put on hold”. The Government wants to control the Judiciary. It doesn’t want an independent bench. It doesn’t want the citizens of this country to enjoy the security of a competent court whose powers are separate and safe from the political machinations of the Executive and the Legislature.

If a JAC made up of reputable “primary stakeholders”, and not by toadying civil servants and politicians, is not established, and if Article 121 is not returned to its original form, then whatever shred of credibility this government may have will be destroyed.

The Cabinet will have to decide. Does it want to “renew the public’s trust in the nation’s Judiciary”, or is its hunger for dominance and total control over the three branches of government so ravenous that it can’t see beyond the short term?

Does the Cabinet not realise that by taking away from the people what is rightfully theirs, it is merely digging its own grave?

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Suffer the Children ... of Some

Brave New World (The Star)
12 June 2008

Without exotic foreign holidays, life will no longer be the same."


The sun was setting as the Proton Perdana crunched up the gravel driveway of the bungalow on Jalan Kia Peng. The man sitting in the back seat was oblivious to the gentle glow of dusk that bathed the large well-manicured gardens.

His heart felt heavy and his stomach was knotted.

He was going to break their hearts and there was no way out.

“We are here, sir.”

The voice of the driver shook him out of his deep thoughts. With a barely audible grunt of thanks, he stepped out and with leaden feet walked towards the door.

Before he reached it, the huge oak edifices swung open. A small woman in a blue uniform retrieved his suitcase and collected his shoes as he slipped them off. He hardly noticed her, either.

From within the house, there were sounds of a loud X Box game in progress and young children shouting. The man walked into the living room. Expensive Italian furniture was arranged around a 40-inch plasma TV, its sleek modernity a stark contrast to the gaudiness of the sofas and armchairs.

A boy and a girl were transfixed by the screen, watching monsters get beheaded. A woman lounged in an armchair, her diamonds glittering.

“Listen, everybody, I must speak to you,” said the man.

“Not now, Papa, we are reaching level five,” said the boy.

“No, now,” said the man.

The sombre tone of his voice cut through the shrill screams from the video game. The children and the woman looked to the man, their normal indifference suddenly replaced by unfamiliar concern.

Seating himself, the man leaned on his elbows and stared at the floor.

In a voice quivering with barely suppressed emotion, he started to speak.

“Darling, children, I am afraid we can’t go to Orlando Disneyland this year.”

“Where are we going then?” asked the girl. “England? Europe?”

“We can only go to somewhere in Asean.”

The gasps from the family just about drowned out the crack in his voice as he finished his sentence. Then the barrage of questions started. Why? What happened? How can this be?

As the voices rose to a crescendo, the man snapped, tears running down his face as he screamed, “The oil price has gone up and we can’t go on holidays around the world any more!”

“But, darling,” said the woman, “I already told the girls I would bring back for them oranges from Florida. How can I face them in Carcosa at our high tea tomorrow?”

“Papa, you promised Disneyland. I hate you! I hate you!” shrieked the boy as he stormed out of the room.

“Wait, boy!” he called out. “You must try to understand. The whole nation is suffering. We must make sacrifices. It is for the good of the country and for the future.”

But it was too late; the boy had already disappeared into his bedroom. Soon, the sound of heavy rap played at full volume could be heard.

“Oh, darling. Think about the children. How are they going to face their friends at the international school? Where are we going to go on holiday?”

The man wiped away his tears of frustration and held his head as he thought of what to say.

Suddenly, he looked up and with a smile bordering on the maniacal, he said: “What about Singapore? Or we can even go local. Let’s go to A Famosa in Malacca. It’s fun, they have a theme park and an animal and cowboy show. Malaysia Truly Asia! Heh heh heh ...”

His laugh petered out as the girl and the woman stared at him icily, slicing through his forced jollity.

For the longest while, nothing was said. Then the rap music abruptly stopped. The three looked up as the boy walked back to them.

“I understand sacrifice, Papa. And I think I have the solution,” he said.

The family stared at him, hope shining in their eyes. “We can all go to Hong Kong Disneyland!” he exclaimed excitedly.

The man broke down again and buried his face in his hands. Between his gasping sobs, he cried,

“Oh, my son, my poor, poor boy. Don’t you know? Hong Kong is not in Asean.”

“Arrrgghhh!” the boy screamed and ran back to his room, wailing, “I hate you! I hate my life! I want to die!”

The girl, unable to bear the pain any longer, stood up. She loomed over the broken shell that was her father and said, “I know we all have to suffer because of the oil price, Papa. But why do WE have to suffer SO MUCH?” Then she too stalked away.

The man stared into the middle distance.

His pain was almost too much to endure. The only sound in the room was the clinking of his wife’s diamonds as her bosom heaved with racking sobs.

It barely smothered the sound of his shattering heart, for without their exotic foreign holidays, life would never be the same again.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Of Dilbert and Bulldogs

Brave New World (The Star)
29 May 2008

All the players in the legal profession must work together to come up with a well thought-out and reasoned solution to ensure our lawyers are of the best possible quality."


There is a Dilbert cartoon in which the pointy-haired boss accuses a worker of all sorts of shortcomings. Then he ends his tirade by saying that she is also unable to take criticism.

This naturally puts the poor employee in a difficult position. She wants to defend herself but if she did so, she would confirm her boss’ analysis.

I feel like that hapless employee after reading Justice Gopal Sri Ram’s tirade against local law graduates. I am a lecturer in a local university and if I were to support my school, I would look defensive.

Yet, I can’t just let this go by. So allow me to try to address the criticism as objectively as possible.

If the reporting was accurate, the judge was pretty vicious. But then, one does not expect anything less from the judiciary’s bulldog (I use the term “bulldog” as a metaphor for tenacious toughness; no canine contempt intended).

His Lordship’s main criticism, as I see it, is that our graduates are not prepared for the real world of practice. There is more than a grain of truth in that statement. However, before we start to gun down local universities, let us understand just what it is universities are supposed to and not supposed to do.

Universities are academic institutions and, as such, we provide academic training. We are not really vocational schools that provide the sort of practical training the judge is calling for.

Having said that, there is a slight case of schizophrenia on our part. The law courses in Malaysia last four years, and the final year is a sort of “professional” year in which you study the more practice-oriented subjects, like procedure and professional practice.

Yet, at the same time, the “academic” ethos is still part of the package so perhaps we are not as practice-oriented as we could be.

In Britain, this problem does not exist because the academic and the vocational training aspects are quite distinct. You do three years of undergraduate study and if you pass, you get your LLB. Then the vocational training is provided for when you take the course for either the bar exams or the solicitors’ exams.

The universities are thus left with ensuring academic quality and the Bar and solicitor schools deal with the practical aspects of the profession.

Now, if we are to improve matters and make our graduates more prepared for practice, there are three options that I can see.

The first is to make the entire course less academic and more practical. I can’t agree with this. The Bachelor of Laws degree (the LLB) is not merely to train practising lawyers. It is about the teaching of the law and the appreciation of the law.

It is about the training of the mind, to think and to analyse in a particular way. I believe there is value in that.

Another alternative is to make just the final year much more practical. This is a tempting possibility and one that could succeed with the necessary consultations and with the proper funding and staffing.

The final possibility is the one that is being put forward by the Government now, and that is to have a common Bar exam with its own syllabus. This proposal has yet to take solid form so we don’t know what it will entail.

In principle, I see no problem with a common Bar exam. My concern is one of trust. The closest equivalent we have had to a common Bar exam is the Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP) exam that foreign or external degree graduates without a Bar or solicitors’ qualification have to sit for.

The CLP is not without its problems. There are far too many scandals associated with it and far too many serious criticisms aimed at it.

There are many weaknesses in our law schools, let me be the first to admit to that. However, any problems that we have and any attempts at improving them are in our hands.

Despite our problems, at the very least, I know that a student passes on his or her merit. Exam scripts are sent to external assessors comprising both local and foreign academics and practitioners to ensure fairness and quality.

And in my 18 years of teaching, there has never been a whiff of any monkeying around with quotas and other such suspicions that are, perhaps unfairly, thrown at the CLP.

The CLP experience leaves me concerned. Therefore, until and unless I am convinced of the soundness of the common Bar exam, I am inclined towards improving matters by fixing the existing system in local universities.

It is easy for industry to place the blame for everything on universities.

“Your graduates can’t speak English,” they say. To which my answer is “Yes, that’s right, they came to us speaking like blinking Richard Attenborough and after four years under our tutelage, we destroyed all their language skills”.

And to come back to the main criticism levelled at us: “Your graduates don’t know anything about practice”.

OK, sure, like I said earlier, there is some truth in that. However, the responsibility does not lie with us alone. Surely, a lot of the aspects of practice are to be taught in the nine-month chambering period.

This is the time spent by a law graduate in a law firm learning the ropes before they can be called to the Bar. Why is there no barrage of attack on that aspect of a law graduate’s training?

There is a lot that local universities can do to improve things and we must accept criticisms in the right spirit. But this must be a collaborative effort. All the players in the legal profession must work together to come up with a well-thought-out and reasoned solution in ensuring that our lawyers are of the best possible quality.

And we must do this as rationally and as inclusively as possible, even with bulldogs nipping at our heels.